‘Pay up or pack up’ is a shameful way to treat our overseas veterans
Pay up or pack up. That’s the shameful choice the government gives our foreign and Commonwealth-born service personnel if they want to make a home in the country for which they risked their lives.
Under current rules, non-UK members of our armed forces are exempt from immigration controls during their service. On discharge – and if they have completed four years – they can apply for settlement, but at an eye-watering cost of £2,389. It means a service leaver with a partner and two children would be given a bill just shy of £10,000 when they are transitioning to civilian life. Without paying, they cannot legally live or work in the UK, or access free NHS treatment.
This injustice has gained significant attention in recent times following the unsuccessful efforts of eight Fijian British Army veterans to bring legal action against the government. One of the claimants, Taitusi Ratucaucau – a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns – was handed a £30,000 bill following an emergency operation to remove a brain tumour after he was deemed ineligible for free healthcare.
Landing veterans with massive debts and threatening them with deportation is not the appropriate way to recognise their service
This is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2013, Filimone Lacanivalu, a veteran of Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan, was given an eleventh-hour reprieve after spending weeks in an immigration detention centre awaiting removal to Fiji.
It should not need saying but landing veterans with massive debts and threatening them with deportation is not the appropriate way to recognise their service.
The reply from Minsters is invariably the same: the rules are explained to service personnel and most comply with Home Office requirements. The view of many in the armed forces community, leading service charities and countless others is considerably less indifferent. These men and women left their homes so we can sleep safely in ours. They deserve better than a government profiting from them exercising their right to remain in the country they served.
As calls for reform grew louder, the Ministry of Defence and Home Office launched a consultation in May 2021. Disappointingly, the only proposal on offer was a settlement fee waiver for applicants with at least 12 years’ service – a threshold so high that practically no one will benefit. Families and the unknown number of veterans living in limbo were thrown under the bus.
This was the chance to right a historic wrong, instead the government chose to bring forward something that is virtually pointless. In response, the former Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer, and I tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill last month to scrap fees for service personnel and their families. Despite support from all opposition parties and a rebellion of Conservative MPs, the government successfully defeated it but that has only made the calls for reform even louder.
Ministers proudly commit to making the UK “the best place to be a veteran anywhere in the world.” It is a noble ambition – one around which we can all unite – but the current treatment of our foreign and Commonwealth service community shows how much work the government must do to convert strapline into substance.
Our country has long benefited from the sacrifices made by soldiers, sailors and airmen who journeyed from across the globe to protect us. Their dedication cannot be called into question. The only anomaly is why the government refuses to show the same commitment to them.
Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, Mayor of South Yorkshire, and a former British Army Major.
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